On Saturday May 16 this year, conductor and music educator Patrick Brennan was working in his Central Coast garden when an accident with a circular saw nearly severed his left hand.

The Central Coast Conservatorium of Music, where Brennan is Artistic Director and CEO, and the Northern Sydney Symphonic Wind Ensemble, where he is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, both issued statements confirming the accident but asked that no direct contact be made with the Brennan family at that time.

Patrick Brennan is currently undergoing a slow rehabilitation after nearly losing his left hand. Photograph courtesy of the Central Coast Conservatorium of Music

Two months after receiving the terrible injury, Brennan is now speaking publicly for the first time about what happened and the rehabilitation process that he is now undergoing.

“I am kind of back in one piece,” he tells Limelight. “It has been a bit of an interesting little journey,” he adds with considerable understatement. “I was being a DIY Dad out the back as one does when one is in a COVID-19 hiding phase. I was working on some garden stakes and the [circular saw] jumped back onto my hand and I got a pretty nasty shock.”

Brennan admits he thought he might lose his hand as the injury was so severe. “I uttered that a number of times to my neighbours who were helping me with first aid. I was talking about ‘I’m a conductor, I need my hand’ as one screams and tries to hold oneself together, waiting for the ambulance to arrive,” he says.

Brennan was airlifted by helicopter to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital where, thanks to the skill of surgeon Dr James Ledgard and his team, the hand was saved.

Brennan may be right-handed, but the loss of his left hand would have taken an equally devastating toll on his conducting technique. “My right hand is my stick hand and my left hand is what I would call my expressive hand. That’s the hand that generates the sound and inflection and all those wonderful things that you see conductors do. Often people will say, ‘well you’ve got your other hand.’ Yes, but when you watch someone with a beautiful left-hand technique, it’s the subtle movements of the fingers, the shaping of the phrase and all that sort of thing that happens as we’re working.”

Since having the surgery in May, Brennan has returned to the Royal North Shore Hospital every two weeks to consult with the surgeon and the Hand Therapy unit. The rehabilitation process is expected to take between six and 18 months.

“They initially said six to 12 months but they’ve suggested I will probably need a tendon reconstruction on two of my fingers because they are not lifting at this stage so that will kick it back a little further, I suspect, so it’s a long journey,” says Brennan.

“At the moment my hand – as my wife would say – looks like a patchwork quilt but I’ve got a hand that looks like a hand. I’m not a 100 per cent across the physiology but all the bones are intact. The tendons were all attached but it looks like a couple might have come undone. But I think the major drama with an injury like this is getting tendons moving and working because [the hand] is is a pretty complex beast. I’ve just begun to learn how complicated its mechanism is.”

Patrick Brennan before his accident, Opera in the Arboretum, Pearl Beach in 2019 © Lisa Haymes

Brennan exercises daily. His current regime sees him doing half an hour’s physiotherapy every hour. He uses his right hand to help move the damaged hand around and bend the fingers into different positions, as well as trying to move the left hand independently.

“Up until this point it has been limited movement as the tendon stitching has been solidifying, and now I am pushing into a little bit more robust movement of the fingers,” he says.

Brennan believes that being a musician has helped him accept and embrace the rigorous, disciplined demands of the rehabilitation process. “I am pretty good at doing what I’m told. Being a musician we are instructed [to do things] and when someone tells you to do something you do it. I played professionally as a bassoonist with the orchestras in town. I’ve done eight hours practice for an extended period of time plus played gigs so I am okay at being regimented. So, I think being a musician is helping immeasurably as I know and understand structure. And it’s just like practice; it is what it is – and it’s a pretty important outcome that I’m working towards.”

Brennan holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Before becoming a conductor, he worked as a professional bassoonist for 15 years with orchestras including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

As a music educator he has worked at tertiary institutions including the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music. Earlier this year, he was selected to gain further professional development through the Australian Conducting Academy and was mentored by Maestro Johannes Fritzsch at the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Brennan was appointed as Artistic Director of the Central Coast Conservatorium in 2012. In 2014, his role was expanded to AD and CEO. He is also the Musical Director of the Central Coast Youth Orchestra, the Central Coast Concert Band, and the Central Coast Symphonic Wind Orchestra, and in 2019 was appointed as Music Director of the Central Coast Philharmonia Choir.

In 2010, he founded the Northern Sydney Symphonic Wind Ensemble (NSSWE) as an extension program for students across the Northern Sydney region who play woodwind, brass or percussion. NSSWE currently includes 200 musicians across four wind ensembles.

In two weeks’ time, Brennan will conduct again for the first time since his accident, leading one of the NSSWE ensembles. “I’d be crazy to say I wasn’t a little bit nervous at what’s going to happen and how it’s going to work,” he admits. “I guess my mental approach will be that I’ve got a broken hand and over the course of the next six to 18 months I’m hopeful that I’ll get as much [movement] back as I can. That will be my very first rehearsal [since the accident and the introduction of the COVID-19 restrictions] and the week after, I will be jumping into conducting ensembles up here on the Central Coast.”

Asked if that means conducting the students in person, he says: “We are very carefully moving into a safe work environment. We are limited with the number of kids we can work with, so we have to be very mindful in regards to how we work with that. But we are very careful that the numbers of students and numbers of teachers are appropriate for what we are allowed as we need to do to make sure that everyone is safe with COVID in mind.”

Patrick Brennan conducting one of the ensembles at the Northern Sydney Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Photograph courtesy of the NSSWE

Like everyone else working in the arts, Brennan can’t wait for COVID-19 restrictions to disappear so that musicians can gather to rehearse together in person. At NSSWE he played a significant role in managing the transfer of its extension music program into an online format called NSSWE Connect. But he can’t wait to move beyond the digital connection.

“For all musicians this COVID thing is a complete disaster,” he says. “We are doing what we can and we are desperately trying to get back in front of the kids because there is a lot of what we call Zoom fatigue going on. We have been trying to run programs online but there is no such thing as far as I am concerned as a rehearsal online. It doesn’t work. So we have been building music skills in online forums and formats but not actually rehearsing.”

“With a rehearsal, as in a performance, you feed off the people around you and the sounds they are generating. That feeds back to the conductor and the conductor then feeds it back to them, and that circle of energy continues, and that’s how we get spectacular performances and a feeling of enjoyment in the rehearsal process. Although you can be quite clever with what you can do online, when you are sitting in a room alone you never get that immediate feedback of playing with the people around you, and the feeling of the music coming together.”

While Brennan continues to undergo a slow rehabilitation, the Central Coast Conservatorium is undergoing its own restoration with a long-awaited upgrade made possible by $2 million announced by NSW Premier Glady Berejiklian in September 2019. The Central Coast Council has also contributed a $10,000 grant towards developing a heritage plan to ensure the integrity of Gosford’s oldest building is preserved.

“We have got some wonderful things going on with the refurbishment. I think it is starting as early as next week. I am on leave at the moment because of this injury so I’ve got my foot a little bit in the door but not entirely,” says Brennan.

“I can’t tell you the finishing date but we are hoping that many aspects of it will be finished late in the year, which is when we hope to see a lot of the work completed.”

Brennan says that he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from other musicians and members of the local community following his accident.

“I have had messages from all around Australia from colleagues, and the support from the community here has been absolutely incredible,” he says. “Obviously I conduct a number of the community ensembles up here and the outpouring of thoughts and wishes and support in so many different ways has been quite unbelievable. It shows how important the arts, and the people within in the arts, are to the community.”